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Why all eyes are on Powell and Clarida this week

Brian Cheung
Reporter

This will be a critical week of Fedspeak for a central bank that hopes to wrap up its decade-long effort to return the U.S. economy to its natural growth rate. In recent weeks, what’s been interpreted as an ambiguous, yet dovish tone from Federal Reserve officials has led traders to scale back their expectations for rate hikes.

On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell may provide color on where rate hikes will stop so the economy is running at its longer-run neutral real rate, a point often referred to as r*.

“With the hiking cycle well under way, Chair Powell’s greatest challenge—when to stop— lies ahead,” Morgan Stanley economists said on Monday.

Vice Chairman Richard Clarida will also offer his economic outlook at an event in NYC Tuesday morning.

Both speakers are expected to follow up on previous speeches where they telegraphed that the economy is getting close to neutral, but did not offer clear prescriptions on how many rate hikes are needed. Their comments will come amid mounting expectations for a final rate hike for 2018 in their Federal Open Market Committee meeting that will conclude December 19.

How many more hikes until we’re at neutral?

Fed speakers and market analysts have different crystal ball readings on how far away the Fed is from reaching its neutral rate – their predictions largely depend on how hot they see the economy running. Some feel that the central bank is three 25-basis-point hikes away from neutral but those worried about overheating think the Fed should hike at least five times before reviewing the stance of accommodative policy.

In comparison, Clarida and Powell have been slower to share their views on when they see accommodation ending. In October, Clarida and Powell spoke gingerly on how far short-term interest rates – currently in a target range of 2% to 2.25% – are from the natural rate.

But two weeks ago, Clarida said he could see the neutral rate as somewhere between 2.5% to 3.5%, which would cover between two and six rate hikes away from the current level. Clarida has said he would be using inflation as his guide; a “material rise” would convince him on more accommodative policy while “stable” inflation and inflation expectations would keep him on his current path of normalization.

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell holds a news conference following a two-day Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) policy meeting in Washington, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

Powell has not offered an estimate but noted November 14 that the economy remains “really strong,” despite warning of slowing growth abroad and the waning effects of the U.S. tax cuts.

“Dovishly-perceived”

In a note November 23, Deutsche Bank said expectations for 2019 rate hikes declined by about 20 basis points due to those public remarks that they described as “dovishly-perceived.”

“In turn, we expect their speeches [this week]…will strike a more balanced tone and should clarify the message with respect to the Fed’s views on the latest developments,” Deutsche wrote.

The growing expectation that the Fed is closing in on the neutral rate has sparked conversation about the post-accommodative chapter of monetary policy. New York Fed President John Williams has described the Fed’s next objective as the “third phase” of policymaking, where the Fed will be tasked with maintaining an economy at its neutral level.

The Fed is already starting to review its strategies and communication policies in anticipation of a policy shift that may no longer project increases or decreases in the benchmark interest rate.

Morgan Stanley says the “third phase” will be critical for market participants in the later part of next year.

“We believe this ‘wait-and-see’ posture will dominate conversation in the back half of 2019 as the Fed sits on rates,” Morgan Stanley wrote.

Powell and Clarida’s commentary will also be supplemented by other FOMC members; Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic and New York Fed President John Williams are scheduled to make public remarks tomorrow and Friday, respectively.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the banking industry and the intersection of finance and policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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